A few years ago, I was visiting a friend’s house in Lahore, and while sitting in his room we could hear the muffled sounds of singing. We assumed it was a wedding, or a dholki, and left it at that. Later, when we found ourselves on the roof, we could hear the songs clearly. They were Christmas carols being sung in a church nearby. And they were in Punjabi.
For a Karachiite whose experience of the world was largely informed by TV and magazines, Punjabi was the language of comically bad films, and carols were sung by American-accented anthropomorphic woodland creatures in cartoons. To hear them both come together felt so bizarre that I burst out laughing.
But before you ring the Political Correctness Police, hear me out for a bit more.
The reason I was laughing was that despite the inherent diversity of languages, cultures and beliefs in Pakistan, we have done a very good job of pretending that there is an unstinting homogeneity spanning from the coast to Khyber post. And so when confronted with realities (such as Punjabi Christians practicing their faith in their native language), which our preconceived notions can’t process, we blurt out in manners that are clearly troubling.
Yup, that’s the excuse trotted out by a maulana in a mosque in New Mianwali to explain why a group of worshippers from one sacred area had decided to go and trash, deface and desecrate the sacred site for another group of worshippers, who they beat up as well – just to be on the safe side. Peace was finally brought about when the underprivileged, persecuted and demonized group of worshippers decided to agree that they indeed were the side to blame.
Now I ask you - what should our reaction be to an incident like this? An incident that involves the stomping of a Holy Book, an incident that involves the destruction of a religious site, and an incident that recalls the grim savagery we decry elsewhere in the world.
Well, since we are discussing this on the internet, I suppose we can start a Facebook page, or post a link to our wall, or tweet about it and email our friends abroad.
Some people would say that such actions are futile, and perhaps they are. But for a few minutes last week, it seemed like those ‘some people’ would finally be proven wrong.
After all, hadn’t the internet been responsible for taking what had been a private tale of anguish and despair to the institutions that matter, and ensured that a man who risked his life for us, who had lost his children for us, would have to suffer no more?
As Ahsan Butt pointed out recently, Pakistan is the place where the most delusional, cynical fantasies come true. And so it was that the man whose stoic gaze had moved us all was no more than yet another compatriot with a superhuman capacity to defraud and cheat.
The entire episode made you wonder - what is wrong with us? How and when will we change?
Most of the time when we dream of change, we catch ourselves looking towards the west. Our longing gaze often flies long-haul, stopping-over in Dubai or Riyadh, before disembarking in some shiny capital. For the past year, it keeps pausing at Cairo, soaking in the atmosphere of Tahrir Square, and beseeching that heady sense of liberation to drift over to us.
Surely, a revolution would be able to rid our society of all these assorted ills.
If anything, we’ve had more revolutions than most tyrants have had Westernised, blood thirsty successors.
Which brings us back to square one - once we’re done with uncomfortably laughing at those different from us, how do we get around to providing them a space where they can feel free to be who they are without getting beaten, maimed and killed for it?
I am not one to ring the clarion call for revolutions, because the revolt is the easy part - what’s more difficult is sustaining it’s heady slogans and internalising them. So if our call goes out preaching for equality, then it has to start with us.
Next time you meet someone different, don’t offer them platitudes about how we are all the same, or how you feel their pain. Try and listen instead to whatever they have to say. Try and listen to their pain or their joy. Try and ask a question, and instead of feigning interest, attempt to locate what you can learn from.
And most importantly, don’t proceed with the weight of unattainable principles bearing down on you, but instead, proceed with love. We practice these great delusions about the power/futility of our actions in the bigger picture, without ever realising that the only picture that matters is the one we paint ourselves.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.